Single Carrot Theatre will take a bold leap into the unknown this June when it gives up its permanent performing home at 2600 N. Howard St.
Instead, the 12-year-old troupe will conduct a series of environmental performances in unusual settings — perhaps a private home, church or bus — that reflect themes of the plays being produced, beginning in September.
Alix Fenhagen, the troupe’s interim managing director, said that over the past few years company members discovered that they were investing too much money, energy and time in fulfilling the financial responsibilities that came from leasing their 6,000-square-foot theater and not enough resources in creating art.
“We don’t have the capacity to be a booking agent,” she said. “That’s not part of our mission. Our mission is doing programming that deeply engages the community. Our mission is getting people to leave Netflix and to engage with the city in a new way. Our mission is doing work that is vital and meaningful and relevant, and we think this is the way to accomplish that.”
Phong Le, an assistant professor of mathematics at Goucher College and president of the Greater Remington Improvement Association, said losing Single Carrot would be a blow to the neighborhood. Not so much from a business sense, he said; small businesses open and close all the time, and communities move on. But losing a performing arts venue like Single Carrot, that brings visitors to the neighborhood and serves as a cultural attraction, “feels different,” he said.
“If a bike shop moves out, another bike shop moves in,” Le said. “If a fancy restaurant moves out, another fancy restaurant can move in. If an experimental theater troupe moves out, I think it’s safe to say another experimental theater troupe won’t move in.”
City Councilman Robert Stokes, whose district includes Remington, said he was “very sorry that they are leaving.” The city, he said, needs to do a better job of anticipating the needs of an organization like Single Carrot and provide assistance before a crisis happens.
“We’ve got to talk to businesses and find out who’s struggling,” Stokes said. “Sometimes we find out too late.”
Still, the councilman added, the surrounding area, even with Single Carrot’s departure, remains a vibrant cultural center. The 12th district, which Stokes represents, includes the Station North Arts District, home to the Motor House, Niarchos Foundation Parkway, BIG Theater, Metro Gallery and The Charles, as well as the nearby Ottobar.
“We have a lot of theaters, lots of arts space,” Stokes said. “It’s been one of the hottest districts in the city, as far as the arts.”
Fenhagen said company members were aware that they were taking a risk by reversing the traditional growth trajectory for a performing arts group. Most fledgling troupes are nomadic and produce their seasons in multiple venues. Arts groups that stabilize often move into a permanent performing space that makes it easier to develop a loyal audience. Companies that reach maturity may move into a larger building that they renovate to fit their performing needs and that they may even own.
That’s the path followed recently by Everyman Theatre, which in 2013 renovated the former Town Theatre. The following year the Chesapeake Shakespeare Co., which had performed at different sites in Howard County, rehabbed the former Mercantile Bank Building and moved permanently into Baltimore.
In contrast, a once-prominent local arts group, the Contemporary museum, struggled since losing its permanent home in 2011. A reorganization as a museum without walls in 2013 temporarily seemed to breathe new life into the organization — until its dynamic executive director, Deana Haggag, took a new job in Chicago in March 2017. Nine months later, the Contemporary laid off its two remaining staff members and announced it was going on hiatus.
Single Carrot Theatre, in contrast, has had a permanent performing home from its earliest days in Baltimore. The company was formed in 2007 by a group of recent graduates from the University of Colorado, Boulder. They researched cities across the U.S. before concluding that Baltimore was most likely to be hospitable to a group that specialized in mounting cutting-edge shows written by fresh new voices in the theater.
It was a charming origin story, and the plucky newcomers were embraced by Baltimore’s arts community. Single Carrot attracted influential patrons and set up a 50-seat performing space in Station North.
But the company’s middle age was more challenging.
After a temporary sojourn in the Charles Street performing space vacated by Everyman Theatre in 2013, Single Carrot moved into the 2600 N. Howard St. building in Remington, which had space for a rehearsal hall, administrative offices and a 99-seat black box theater.
“There were a few rough years,” Fenhagen acknowledged. “There was a perception that just because we had more space, more people would come to see our shows. Some of the work we did was really exciting, and some of it was not.”
Moreover, Single Carrot’s business plan was predicated on having long-term tenants. But it lost a few key occupants — the Baltimore Improv Group, a church — and replacing them wasn’t easy. The troupe scaled back annual productions from a high of five a year to three.
Finally, last summer the company faced a financial crisis that nearly forced it to close. It launched a fundraising campaign through Crowdrise, an online fundraising site for nonprofits, and pleaded with the public to donate $55,000 by July 31 to forestall “a critical shortfall that may mean the end of Single Carrot.”
The appeal was successful, Fenhagen said, and the company raised $60,000. But it was clear that something had to change.
“What we’re doing isn’t unique,” she said. “A number of theater companies across the country are struggling with similar issues, and some of them have given up their performing spaces.
“We really began to dig down to see what makes the work we're doing important. Many of the projects that have had the best response from the audience and from the critics over the past two years either did not take place in our space or did not need to.”
For example, she said, audience members boarded a bus that traversed the city for the 2017 production “Promenade: Baltimore.” Attendees looked out the bus windows as company members acted out scenes of neighborhood life. Not only was that production extremely well received, she said, but it brought new audience members.
“Troupes across the country are trying to figure out what the role of theater is now,” she said. “We think that doing this kind of work can be extremely exciting and relevant and have an appeal that traditional theater just doesn’t have.”